Tag Archives: woman

Women in Props

Earlier this month, I shared an article about a busy prop shop in midtown Manhattan, circa 1898, which was owned and operated by a woman. It reminded me that I’ve neglected to research the contribution of women to the world of props throughout the centuries.

Just as “property man” was the common term for one who works in props from the early 1600s through World War II, so too does “property woman” appear in the descriptions and literature on theatre. The Oxford English Dictionary tracks its earliest usage to a one-act play published in 1795 titled New hay at the old market. An actor playing a prompter speaks the line:

Oh ! that alters the case. Well, let it be handsome; do you mind? Stud it with brass-nails, and cover it with the best Morocco—and tell the Property-woman to put a good soft velvet cushion in it, dye hear ?

I’ve dug up an even earlier reference from 1780. In his Remarks upon the Present Taste for acting Private Plays, R. Cumberland, Esq., writes:

Happy author, who shall see his characters thus grouped into a family-piece, firm as the Theban band of friends, where all is zeal and concord, no bickerings nor jealousies about stage-precedency, no ladies to fall sick of the spleen, and toss up their parts in a huff, no heart-burnings about flounced petticoats and silver trimmings, where the mother of the whole company stands wardrobe-keeper and property-woman, whilst the father takes post at the side scene in the capacity of prompter with plenipotentiary controul over PS’s and OP’s.

The use of the term “property-woman” appears in both America and England throughout the nineteenth century up through the early twentieth century. In many instances, it is the gender equivalent of “property-man”, describing anyone who works in props, from what we consider today to be a property master, to a property artisan and even a run crew person who handles and tracks the props backstage during a performance. In other cases, it appears to define a more specialized backstage role, used interchangeably with “wardrobe woman” and even “dresser”.

In today’s theatre, we have ceased using these gender-specific terms, and have switched to more descriptive titles, such as properties artisan, properties carpenter and properties director. However, you occasionally hear the term “property mistress” used clumsily in place of “property master” when the property master is a woman. It turns out this term was actually used fairly frequently in the early twentieth century. An example comes from a 1921 article in Century Magazine, by George P. Baker:

Just before a piece goes into rehearsal it is read to the artistic and producing force as well as to the actors, all of whom watch it for the special problems it may have for them. Immediately after the reading, copies of the play are handed to the costumer, designer of scenery, property mistress, the person in charge of lighting, and the stage-manager. As soon as possible, these meet individually with the author to make sure that they know exactly what he wants, and, as groups, to establish their plans cooperatively.

While the twentieth century may seem late in the game for women to take charge of props, keep in mind that the idea of a property master in general did not take shape until the mid-nineteenth century. People may have had the duties of a property master, but it fell under a different job (usually the prompter or an assistant).

Strangely, the term all but disappears throughout the middle of the century, only to start popping up again in the late 1980s. By the twenty-first century, more and more theatre companies were switching the job title to the more appropriate (and gender-neutral) “properties director” to describe the person in charge of the props shop. Individual shows still use the term “property master”, and most Playbills and programs use that term whether it was a man or woman doing the job. “Property mistress” shows up only in informal usage and in fluffy news articles.

A Place to Buy Thunder, 1898

The following excerpt was originally published in the March 6, 1898, of The New York Times. It is not only interesting in its description of a theatrical prop store and shop in Midtown Manhattan at the end of the nineteenth century, but remarkable in the fact that the proprietor is a woman. Unfortunately, the article never mentions her name!

A Place to Buy Thunder

That, as Well as Lightning, Fog, Snow, and a Moon, for Sale by a Woman.

Assortment of Oddities

Ingenious Devices Under the Head of Theatrical Hardware—A Japanese and a Donkey Skin Made to Order.

She has thunder by the sheet, fog by the yard, lightning by the box, snow by the bushel, and the child who cries for the moon can get it there, if he will only wait until it is manufactured. It won’t be made out of green cheese, either, but more likely from pale blue silk, for moons have been made out of that before now, and they were eminently satisfactory and couldn’t have been told by any one but a connoisseur from the real article; and who is a connoisseur in moons?

And the mistress of all these natural elements is not a Mme. Jove, either, but a nice, ordinary, every day sort of woman, and this queer collection of hers is merely food for herself and her children. Not literally, for even a pretty, pale blue silk moon might be indigestible, but she provides them for “the profession,” and indirectly they become oatmeal and coffee, roast beef and plum pudding.

It might be thought that the establishment where all these strange things are to be found would resemble those regions supposed to take a low position in the universe, and to be the home of all things unpleasant and flamable, but it doesn’t. It is a modest little place, not so far from Thirtieth Street, on the line of the elevated road and the proper business of the proprietor, when it is called by its right name, is that of dealer in theatrical hardware. The visitor would not even guess, in taking a view of the stock, that the word theatrical was appropriate, for nothing but small articles of seemingly ordinary hardware are in sight.

That is not strange, as there is never a demand for the same kind of thunder, lightning, or other theatrical appliances which are supplied on demand of the property man or the stage carpenter, and very little of anything is kept on hand, though they can be had at a moment’s notice. The hardware proper is the most prosaic part of the business. That consists of the wheels, bolts, screws—everything that is needed to make the curtains and scenery of a theatre stay where they are wanted, and move when they are not wanted. Continue reading